Friday, January 1, 2016

Getting Misty About an Old Classic

Misty, by illustrator Wesley Dennis
Recently, I've been filling in gaps in my reading, looking at books that I neglected over the years.  I just found a paperback copy of Marguerite Henry's Newbery Honor-winning MISTY OF CHINCOTEAGUE at the "book shack" at our town's sanitation facility (AKA dump).  I'd never read it because I'd dismissed it.  In a snarky, boyhood way, I had classified it as a "girl book," as in "I LOVE HORSES!!!!" (surrounded by lots of scented-marker hearts).

I couldn't have been more wrong, in a variety of ways.  It wasn't at all what I'd thought.  Perhaps part of my problem was that it has always been a "big name" book, and growing up, I knew of it as merely  "a horse book."  So I automatically assumed it was one of those horse books that I saw girls in my classes holding.  BLACK BEAUTY.  MY FRIEND FLICKA.  THE BLACK STALLION.  I didn't see other boys carrying those books around.

I'm including a piece on Misty of Chincoteague in this blog about characters because I was so surprised by what I found.  Misty, herself, is a surprisingly small character in the book.  She doesn't even appear until a third of the way through the story.  I'd always assumed it was all drippy, horse-love-y adulation about Misty, from page one.  Misty, Misty, MISTY!!!

But in reality, it's primarily about Paul and Maureen Beebe, the Chincoteague Island kids who love horses and who craft a plan to earn enough money to purchase Phantom, a wild horse they're sure they'll be able to capture during the annual Pony Penning Day on Assateague Island.  Misty comes into the story unexpectedly during the roundup of wild horses, as Paul chases Phantom through the underbrush, and discovers that Phantom has a foal.

Grandpa's ear hair fixation is a little upsetting.
I was also surprised that Paul is such a large character in the book—dare I say he's the main character? His sister Maureen, to me, felt secondary to Paul.  Again, I write this always believing that Misty was a "girl book"—girl finds horse, girl loves horse, horse loves girl.  Life is good.

Yet this isn't what I found in the story.  In fact, most of the main characters are male.  Paul seems to be more present, more vividly drawn than Maureen.  Grandpa seems the second most vivid character, with a distinctively crusty and dialect voice (why don't other characters in the book sound like pirates?), whose biggest character trait seems to be messing about with his ear hair.  He feels much more present than Grandma, who's a loving person, but is far less clearly defined.  

I haven't read any scholarship on Misty of Chincoteague—was Marguerite Henry's choice to emphasize Paul over Maureen a realistic reflection of actual roles of men and women around horses on Chincoteague, or an inherent sexism of the times (the book was published in 1947)?  Who was the original intended audience for the book?  Was it assumed that girls would read books with male protagonists, but that boys wouldn't read books with female protagonists (such as The Hundred Dresses, a 1945 Newbery Honor book)? There are numerous subtle reminders of 1940s gender "status" throughout—at one point, Paul vaults over a fence, while Maureen slips through the rails.  In the illustration below, Paul stands with feet spread wide, hands on hips, and Maureen kneels on the ground.  In the illustrations, Maureen is wearing a dress—might a clam-digging, farm-working girl have worn dungarees instead?  It may be wrong to apply our current understanding of gender roles to a 1947 book, but I did notice them—possibly because they ran so counter to what I'd expected.
Grandpa, Paul and Maureen

But back to Misty.  Again, I was surprised at what a small part of the story Misty plays.  [Spoiler alert, for that ONE person out there who hasn't already read it!]  Misty is a lively and delightful foal, and loves Paul and Maureen and her new life as a domesticated horse.  And when Paul releases Phantom to swim back across the water to Assateague Island, Misty stays behind, contented with her life with humans.  

Is it just me, or do other readers wonder if Phantom is going to be corralled next year by someone less full of heart than Paul and Maureen, and sold off to some horse-breaker?  Yet the resolution to the story—Misty stays behind, Phantom gets to return to her wild-natured state—is a happy one, gently foreshadowed for us by Grandpa's reminders that foals are essentially "kicked out" by their mothers, and have to become independent horses on their own.  It gave me the simple satisfaction that a certain kind of older fiction provides.  I feel like a better person for having read this book, at long last.  I only regret that I didn't read it when I was a boy.